The London Sunday Times – True North on the Kimberley Coast – Laura Whateley
Thumbing through the leather-bound welcome briefing in my cabin, it becomes apparent that seasickness on True North is the least of my concerns.
“Please do not feed the wildlife” is the fifth bullet point on the safety page about saltwater crocodiles. “We do not want them associating humans with food.” This comes after instructions to “please immediately” move away from the water’s edge as soon as you disembark a tender during the daily shore excursions. No impromptu swimming, either, which is tough, as this remotest bit of Australia has some of its loveliest, emptiest beaches.
True North, my home for the week, with 18 cabins, 22 crew and a no-shoes policy, is more like a megayacht than a cruise ship, complete with a chopper on the top deck. It offers a truly magical combination: at least the illusion of shelter from nature’s cruellest conditions and critters, with restaurant-quality food and cocktails every night in one of the planet’s last true wildernesses.
In seven days we encounter, at comfortable-ish distance, more crocodiles, crystals and ancient rock art than evidence of modern man.
Where else can you stand on a beach that has not been visited by humans for — quite possibly — thousands of years, after a breakfast of eggs benedict, eaten while watching the sunrise over cliffs of red sandstone that are 1.8 billion years old?
The Kimberley, in the far northwest of Australia, is bigger than Germany but has a (human) population of just 36,000, nearly half of whom are Aboriginal people. Only a fraction of that number live beyond the capital, Broome, where the azure ocean meets the rusty outback landscape.
Among the boats that sail to the Kimberley, True North is a rarity in that it’s nimble enough to navigate the inlets and rivers dictated by the seasons; the deep gorges, canyons, reefs and the epic Kimberley tides. At 11 metres they are Australia’s largest, creating phenomena such as the Horizontal Falls in Talbot Bay. This turns out to be fun for a spot of whitewater riding in one of True North’s six croc-proof tenders.
The vessel’s luxury is not the gold taps kind, but laid-back Aussie hospitality. The young, tanned crew don’t bat an eyelid when preparing an elaborate lunchtime barbecue for 35 guests, chairs folded out for us under an awning, freshly caught fish expertly gutted, tinnies ready-cooled. They’re not even fazed when the barbecue is cooked on the edge of a waterfall-filled freshwater pool, accessible only by helicopter. We — and the food — are flown in over rivers and canyons, so we can have a cooling dip in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The remoteness of this part of the world means it is going to take you a long time to get here, of course, but it is at least straightforward from the UK now, with the restart of the non-stop Qantas route to Perth, a two-and-a-half hour domestic flight from Broome.
I’m on the seven-day Kimberley Snapshot tour from Broome to Wyndham. It ticks off the Kimberley’s big hitters, including King George Falls, described by Craig Howson, the owner of True North, as “Australia’s Niagara”. Although when I’m there in dry season, it’s little more than a trickle. Still, the rocks are spectacular, as is the sheer scale of the Hunter River and the Prince Regent River.
Day one and we enjoy a safe saltwater swim, our first and last, during an 8.30am stop at Silica Beach. The clue’s in the name; the sand is blinding, and squeaks between your toes.
I manage a dip most other days, though, in billabongs we hike to, after zipping on the tenders through narrow, milky green creeks lined with mangroves. True North offers activities on each day of your cruise and you can pick and choose how energetic you want to be.
One of the most special hikes is rated ten out of ten in difficulty. It’s more of an intensely sweaty bouldering exercise, I discover, which leads to a hidden pool dotted with butterflies. Here we throw off our shorts and jump off the rocks to cool off under Jackson Falls.
The actual Jackson, Howson’s son, and also a member of the crew, is on the walk. The Kimberley may have been explored and named by Europeans such as Admiral Phillip Parker King in the early 19th century, but the maps weren’t up to much, and Howson charted a lot of the area himself, by trial and error. He discovered this waterfall in 1994, off the Hunter River, and named it after his son.
On the hike back we stop to search for gems among the boulders, scrabbling among rocks and shells. This is mining country. The Kimberley has diamonds, iron ore, zinc, nickel, lead, oil, and gas, and the ground is rich with minerals. Digging with my hands I find what looks like the corner of some smooth clear glass, to reveal a clear, sparkling crystal the size of my fist.
If searching for fish is more your thing there’s a chance to go out every day. My fellow guests reel in some whoppers, posing for photos with arm-span length tuna and queenfish, which are carved up at the back of the boat and cooked for lunch.
I manage an ugly bug-eyed rock cod, and a baby shark. We throw them back, guiltily, but having never fished before I can’t deny that I love the bloodthirsty thrill of a quivering line, the sun on the back of my neck, and the silence of our boat bobbing on the glassy water.
The most successful fisher of the day receives the honour of getting to wear the novelty fish hat over our lively, communal dinners. We quickly get to know each other on such an intimate boat, in the middle of such vast empty landscapes.
The onboard naturalist leads river trips pointing out tawny nurse sharks and crocs and, if you’re lucky, river dugongs, sea eagles, kingfishers and red-headed honeyeaters. My favourites, though, are the cartoonish neon-coloured fiddler crabs that speckle muddy river banks.
There are turtles, too, which we spot one morning on a dawn trip along Montgomery Reef, which covers 400 sq km and rises fully out of the ocean when the tide drops. The reef is best viewed from the sky, however, where you can see the shadows of rays and turtles in the marbled turquoise waters, and enormous crocodiles sunbathing on sandbanks. Helicopter tours are available as a package, or as individual trips, from £187pp.
We hunt for history, too, to see if we can find some new art: “new” meaning not yet discovered. There are thousands of secret outdoor galleries in the Kimberley, the most inaccessible in the world, we’re told, under shelves of rock. We shimmy into caves and lie on our backs to take in early Wandjina figures — pretty recent, as it goes, painted between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago.
The simpler Bradshaw, or Gwion Gwion, figures appear at first duller in colour until I learn that it’s estimated, based on carbon dating of wasps’ nests built over the images, that they are at least 17,500 years old. Some historians reckon they are over 30,000 years old.
On our final night we all pitch up at another picture-perfect beach for dinner of freshly caught mud crabs dipped in homemade chilli sauce. As the horizon turns hot pink, the east coast Aussies on the trip declare, grudgingly, that maybe it is true, sunsets are better in Western Australia, while the Brits, keeping a safe distance from the lapping ocean, raise a toast of cold sparkling wine: to spending the kids’ inheritance on the trip of a lifetime.
Laura Whateley was a guest of Tourism Western Australia and True North. The Kimberley Snapshot runs during the dry season, from April to August. Seven nights’ full board from £9,948pp, including activities but excluding most alcoholic drinks. Fly to Perth